A young girl, Nelly (Joséphine Sanz), walks into a room and bids farewell to an elderly woman. She moves on to the next room and wishes another woman goodbye. On and on she goes down the hall until she reaches a room with an empty bed. Her mother Marion (Nina Meurisse) sits on the windowsill, her back turned to us. Marion has just lost her mother. Nelly did not get to say goodbye.
Coming off the critical success of Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Céline Sciamma has returned with another feature, this one bringing her back to exploring the complexities of childhood. After previously delivering three solid inquiries into the coming-of-age genre prior to Portrait, Sciamma proves once again with Petite Maman that she is in a league of her own. Told with a simplicity that invites the viewer in upon the first sequence, the film radiates warmth and comfort. The simple nature of the film then guides the audience into a deeper exploration of loneliness, grief, and motherhood through the power of Sciamma’s impeccable script.
Upon her grandmother’s death, Nelly and her parents go to her grandmother’s house in order to clean it out. After spending one night there, Nelly’s mom leaves for a reason unknown to Nelly. Bored and lonely without her mother and with her father busy cleaning out the house, Nelly ventures into the woods to find her mother’s old hut she made as a child. While exploring, she meets Marion (Gabrielle Sanz), who looks very similar to Nelly. In the midst of a rainstorm, the two escape to Marion’s house. It is immediately familiar. The layout, the secret door in the wall, and the green wallpaper from Nelly’s grandmother’s… this is her grandmother’s house — but from the past — and Marion is her mother.
This impossible situation is never questioned, because questioning its plausibility is not what Sciamma is interested in. Instead, the setup allows for Nelly to see her grandmother again, as well as better understand her own mother. As children, we know our parents only as parents, less so as people. Their actions are often mysteries to us. Now, Nelly asks her mother questions before bed, wanting to know her; when Nelly befriends Marion, she immediately knows it is her mother, so she asks Marion the questions that she cannot get answers from her adult mother. The time Nelly spends with Marion reveals more to her about her mother than she could ever get from the bedtime questions she asks. When Nelly and her mother are spending the first night at the house, Nelly sleeps in her mother’s childhood bedroom. Her mother points out where a shadow in the shape of a panther used to scare her as a child. Nelly cannot see it. When she spends the night in the same room with Marion, she can finally see it. She understands.
The richness of the script is supported by the lush, vibrant cinematography of Claire Mathon, who also photographed Portrait. Her compositions are never too loud or out of place, fitting in directly with the simple story. Reds, yellows, and oranges fill the background, making Nelly’s blue outfits pop off the screen. The film is a feast for the eyes, as well as the soul. There is also no score, but like many other Sciamma films, it does feature a euphoric musical moment that leaves your heart racing. Everything about the aesthetics creates an overall warm, inviting feeling to the film. It allows the audience to settle in and meditate on what Sciamma is exploring.
Never boisterous, Petite Maman is a calming experience, until you are left with the credits rolling, and a stream of emotions rushing through you. Every piece laid out comes together in a quietly beautiful fashion. Its ponderings on motherhood are thorough and thoughtful, but who would expect anything less from Sciamma? Nelly’s journey begins with the death of her grandmother, but Marion’s journey began much before that. How wonderful would it be to understand our own parents? We can only hope to try, but Petite Maman exemplifies what the outcome could be. It slowly digs into your heart and connects with the child within you, leaving you with a reverent feeling of warmth and tenderness.